By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
A month ago, Mayor Laura Miller accused District 8 Councilman James L. Fantroy (far Southern and Southeast Dallas) of behavior she called "unethical if not illegal" in a zoning case.
Let's keep that characterization in mind--unethical if not illegal. I think what we're talking about here is a smell test. And please remember, I did ask you to bring a clothespin. As your guide, I am not responsible for injuries as the result of fainting.
The Fantroy deal involved 23 acres of land on Simpson Stuart Road. If Dallas were a watch, this land would be at about 5:30, close to the rim. It's an intriguing area, slightly rolling, wooded with big pecans, where horse corrals are just down the street from huge apartment complexes. There's some bad slummy stuff in the area, but you also see very snappy new residential and retail developments going up.
Fantroy has preached and preached that this area does not need more apartments. He is borne out by real estate research recently provided to the city council, showing that apartment complexes already on the ground have low occupancy. Too many of them for the market. What Fantroy says this area needs is single-family residential. In fact, nice new single-family housing is going up close to the property in question.
The implied accusation was that Fantroy got some zoning passed for a guy he was going to do business with, foiling the conflict-of-interest rules.
The zoning request in question--which city staff said should be denied--was to take single-family and agricultural land and rezone it for apartments, just what Fantroy had said repeatedly should not be done.
Fantroy announced he could not vote on this particular rezoning because he had a conflict of interest. He left the room when it came up. Earlier, he had filed a "disclosure of conflict statement" with the city secretary saying his conflict involved "a security contract (guards)." He and his son own a company called J.L. Security and Investigations, which provides guards for apartment complexes.
When the item came up, however, District 4 council member Maxine Thornton-Reese (mid-Southern Dallas) told everybody that Fantroy wanted it passed. The mayor pointed out that changing this land to apartment zoning would contradict the councilman's stated position and asked Thornton-Reese if the vote could at least be delayed.
Thornton-Reese said, "I talked to Mr. Fantroy, and he said he did not want to defer it. Someone had approached him with that. Now, we can still ask him now, to make sure."
So guess what? Some council members start jumping up, running into the back room, where Fantroy is watching everything on an overhead television screen, and asking him what he wants them to do. They all sit back down. The council votes 11-3 in favor of the change, with Miller and two others opposed.
P.U.! In fact, may I say, major-major P.U.-ee-dewie!
Council members who voted for it say they did so with clothespins on their noses, because of the informal back-scratching rule by which they all go along with the council member in whose district the rezoning is proposed. District 10 Councilman Bill Blaydes (far Northeast) voted for the change but said the Fantroy/Thornton-Reese duet had offended his sniffer.
"That was about as obvious and blatant as anything I've seen in a while," he said.
Talk about a reach-around. Fantroy declares his conflict. Thornton-Reese carries his water. Fantroy's friend gets his zoning. Fantroy gets a security contract. Right?
Mmm, actually that would be wrong.
There is no security contract.
I spoke to the principals in the development project, and they assured me that they have never discussed a security contract with Fantroy, never would, never will, no contract, not never.
Saleem Jafar, who will own this thing when it gets done, said to me, "We would never even consider such an arrangement. There is no agreement, no conflict. If it was a company called XYZ, posing as something else but really his company, we wouldn't do that."
I was convinced. But why did Fantroy declare a conflict? Fantroy said to me, "I had no contract with this company."
Fantroy said he was informed that a secondary player in the deal was a company called Provident Realty Advisors, with whom he does do security business, in other cities but not in Dallas. "I was told by somebody that Provident had something to do with the Simpson Stuart deal. My thing was to say that if anybody was a part of the Simpson Stuart deal, I am going to excuse myself."
So, back on the smell test, the fact is that Fantroy did the right thing in declaring a conflict. And here's a key point: There was no new security contract for him in this deal.
But he supported a zoning change that went against his stated policy. Why? He and Thornton-Reese both insisted to me they were only expressing the wishes "of the community." This area, called Highland Hills, is one Fantroy has been involved in for 40 years. He says this development was for fancy stone-fronted double-garage townhomes that the community thought would be good. That's what he says. I guess I think he'd know.